Risk Management in Volunteering

risk management

Risk management is essential in all volunteer programs. I recently finished a book called “Transforming NOKIA” by Risto Siilasmaa. In it, Risto, the chair of NOKIA’s Board of Directors, talks about the value of “paranoid optimism”. Basically, it’s that old saying “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst”. Paradoxically, by being paranoid (planning for the worst), an organization can be optimistic, because no matter what happens, there’s a plan in place to deal with it or something similar. By planning for the worst, you are justified in hoping for the best. Which is why we do risk management.

Risk management helps to ensure the safety and well-being of both volunteers and the communities they serve. And it starts with thinking about all the things that could go wrong. I’m going to cover three problem areas that I commonly see, and discuss what can be done to mitigate them.

The “Hero” problem.

One of the more significant risks I’ve seen volunteer programs face is becoming too dependent on a single person. This could include the leader of the program, a key volunteer, or even the Executive Director. Let’s face it, we all have that one volunteer that we rely on above all the others. What would happen if, all of a sudden, that person wasn’t there? Illness, injury, or a change in circumstances; many things could happen that would cause them to leave. And your entire program could be in jeopardy.

Succession planning is the key to handling this risk. Do you have an idea of how (or better yet, with whom) to replace the leader? Have a plan in place. It is also vital to build a large group of volunteers who are capable of stepping in and taking on the role of a key volunteer. Encourage that key volunteer to mentor or train newer volunteers so the program develops some resiliency.

The “Goose with the Golden Eggs” problem.

Another common risk that volunteer programs face is becoming too dependent on a single funding source. This could include a grant from a foundation, a government program, or even a single donor. I’ve seen this in an organization where I serve on the Board. The majority of the people we serve are children on the Autism spectrum. There are rumours that the funding process for Autism is going to change in Canada. Parents may no longer have full say over how the funds are spent. Meaning that we may lose some or many of our clients. We needed to come up with a plan to replace that funding if the change does happen. We hope it doesn’t, but we’ve planned for the worst.

What risk management process do you have in place if your main funding source dried up? It’s imperative that you diversify the funding sources for your program. This can be accomplished by developing revenue streams from as many different areas as possible. Social enterprises; new donors; new grants or government funding; even (like we did) expanding your client base for increased membership fees. I recommend at least three strong revenue sources to support your organization. Not saying this is easy; but it’s a lot easier than trying to stay afloat when 90% of your funding has been cut.

The “It’s Always Worked Before” problem.

As we’ve seen over the last couple of years, volunteer programs also run the risk of becoming too dependent on traditional processes and ways of doing things. This could include relying on outdated methods or tools, failing to adapt to changing circumstances, or simply being resistant to change. The problem with this became obvious once Covid hit! Too many organizations simply hunkered down and waited for things to “get back to normal”. Three years later, many of those organizations just don’t exist anymore.

It is essential to be open to new ideas and ways of doing things. Encourage volunteers to share their ideas and suggestions. Seek out new tools and technologies that can help improve the program. Look closely at how you do things, and ask how they could be done differently.  Finally, regularly review what’s happening in your sector and come up with “what if” plans.

Risk management is a crucial aspect of any volunteer program.

Keep in mind NOKIA’s “paranoid optimism” formula. What are your organization’s weak points? Put plans in place for dealing with a breakdown, even if you don’t think it’s likely to happen. The key to successful risk management is to be prepared for any eventuality. Avoid becoming too dependent on a single person, a single funding source, or even your traditional ways of doing things. By having succession plan and a team of trained and capable volunteers, by diversifying funding sources, and by being open to new ideas and ways of doing things, volunteer programs can minimize the risks they face and continue to make a positive impact in the communities they serve.